The changing demand for news

Anyone working in newspapers knows what the three key issues facing the industry are: survival, survival and survival. But, writes Charlie Beckett, as we look around at what’s left after the first digital tsunami of change, this is a good moment to ask if there’s more to a future strategy than ‘not going bust’.

By Charlie Beckett

Just about everyone I talk to in the business is at the point where they ‘get it’. They know that digital technologies are changing their production methods and the way their material is consumed and paid for. They don’t want to be hectored about Web 3.0 by either digital dreamers or prophets of doom. So here’s my attempt to identify what comes second, third and fourth when we’re all ‘digital first’.

In transition

Newspaper and magazine publishing has an unusual problem in finding a new business model. The biggest saving would be to turn off the presses, but it’s still the dead tree platform that brings in the biggest bucks. It’s as if the barge industry in the early 19th century had to keep ploughing up and down canals while trying to set up a railway company. So, with some rare exceptions, most try to keep printing papers alongside the web and social media.

But these are different platforms with different problems and possibilities. We know that the problem with hard copy newspapers is that fewer people have the time or inclination to read them and they cost a lot more to make. However, digital platforms simply don’t attract the same attention in time and their users are much more advert-resistant.

The other end of the problem in this multi-platform world is that the people who had the skills might not have what it takes anymore. At the very least, newsrooms need to find staff with the technical skills as well as the fresh attitudes that will take advantage of the new opportunities with digital production and dissemination.

Management strategy

The biggest problem though might not be the readers or the writers but the managers - or at least the management strategy. Recent research on the most progressive newsrooms says that the successful ones are those that combine commercial, technological and editorial management most closely. This is not just a case of slavishly following the money by following the clicks. Instead it is more a case of linking editorial tactics to a clear plan for revenue growth. One practical example is thinking about what time of day people read your online material. One newspaper found that its peak usage was 8am (readers getting up?), then 10am (readers getting into work?) and then 5pm (when US readers logged on). Yet the peak time for their journalists to complete their content creation was still at about 7pm, the traditional deadline time for newspaper copy.

Our changing audience

Don’t assume that those audience habits will remain the same. Their lives are changing, too. It is not just that they have new gadgets. It is that the technology is evolving to meet new demands. So take women. They are better educated, richer, with less time than ever before. They are also increasingly making the key decisions about media in households, from who controls the TV remote control to which tablets or phones get bought.

The audience is also getting more diverse. Immigration and globalisation means the UK public wants to know what is going on in Islamabad as well as Islington and they have the networks to access that information. Different generations have varying needs. Don’t assume that the ‘digital natives’ know more than ‘silver surfers’. Older people may have more time and money as well as the intelligence to use online sites for longer. If you do not understand the many behaviours of your audience(s) they will move on to someone who does.

All people seem to love the new way that online gives them control and interactivity. Everyone now assumes that everything can be had on demand and on any platform. They are as likely to access your material through a social network peer recommendation as they are through carefully leafing through your tablet edition. A ‘like’ on Facebook or a re-tweet or a Google search are all different pathways to your goods, but people will go straight to the counter without looking in the shop window. So attend to your networks, not just your website front page.

King Content

But here’s the funny thing. In a world where connectivity is so easy, content is king again. You need brilliant material that you can put behind a pay-wall or subscription. Or it needs to be so good that people will stop going to aggregators and instead go straight to you. (This is why Google is still your friend even though they strip out so much advertising revenue). However, your material needs to add value. It helps if it’s beautifully packaged but that will get attention, not sustained custom. So publications that serve a particular audience with expert or informed material will win. Publications that entertain, excite and titillate will win – although there is so much like that online that you really do have to be outstandingly sexy, funny or weird.

It might be that you are not a Content King but a Clever Curator. In a way, we used to call this editing. Do you have the knowledge and contacts to connect people to the best material in a certain field or for a particular audience? In effect, this is similar to the work that a magazine like New Scientist does. Even its original commissioned features are, in effect, aggregating the knowledge of all those boffins finding black holes or new types of worm. They also use their expertise to tell you about a whole series of other interesting scientific developments that they judge to be significant. You trust them to tell you what matters and what is hokum. It’s a traditional function but in the digital age it can be done in a greater variety of ways. Some of these have varying degrees of journalistic input and can even be driven by their users who create the value. These include largely unmoderated aggregators like Digg, more moderated ones like Reddit, or very specialist ones like Longform.

The online winners

Publishers who go online are not all equal on the internet. Our research looking around the world at how successful newspapers are online (we used the measure of Twitter traffic of their stories) showed that some brands are much more successful digitally than others. The Mail and the Guardian, for example, have found huge new audiences beyond these shores. Interestingly, so has the Independent whose newspapers sales are now like those of a city newspaper. Remember, we measured not just traffic on websites but re-tweets by people who liked it and wanted to share it with their networks. That’s a powerful distribution mechanism that must be a better way to help good content find a good home.

The Mail has achieved online volume by relentlessly producing celebrity-fuelled stories aimed particularly at women. Targeting females was actually a tactic that the Mail first used in the early 20th century – but without the bikini and cellulite paparazzi photographs. The Guardian has tapped into an audience of Yanks and Aussies who struggle to find left-leaning, internationally-orientated news and analysis in their own media markets.

Media change does not go in a grand sweeping curve. It tends to go in bursts or steps. It might be that we have reached a bit of level ground. It appears that UK online traffic may have reached a (temporary?) plateau. Internationally, there is a limit to how many readers an English language publication might find. The big prize would be the exploding economies of Asia but there will still be plenty of niches to explore elsewhere.

Moore’s Law

Don’t stand still though. Moore’s Law that talks about exponential growth in the power of computing still applies. There will also be generational effects. Austerity has dampened the rewards to be had from innovation, but look at the companies that now dominate much of global media and they didn’t even exist a decade ago. There will be more outsider challenges to come. Legacy brands have great value and in the media sector, they have responded to the challenge, but unless they invest in reinvention they will be left with dwindling cores. The dead tree newspaper has already become something of a souvenir edition of what a newsroom creates over a 24-hour period. People often now read their ‘morning’ paper in the evening. You have to make sure they are reading you the rest of the day, too.

Even the successful companies will be much smaller relatively when they become sustainable. Networked digital journalism is more efficient. Journalism is moving from being a manufacturing industry that had a monopoly on information, to becoming a service industry that uses connectivity to bring all kinds of content to customers. Increasingly, I think that journalism will become more integrated with other online services from companies, charities, government and universities. We love to shop, date, learn and laugh online; journalism needs to help the public to do all that and more.